Summer is now the time for broadcast networks to get serious

It’s one of the great ironies of the TV industry’s past decade - while viewers virtually ignore original scripted summer programming from the broadcast networks, they embrace new scripted series from basic-cable networks.

For the broadcast networks, this dynamic has meant instant failures like NBC’s “M.Y.O.B.” (featuring a pre- “Gilmore Girls” Lauren Graham), Fox’s “Keen Eddie” (featuring a pre- “Human Target” Mark Valley) and “Mental” (featuring a post-"Sopranos” Annabella Sciora), not to mention CBS provocations “Swingtown” and “Harper’s Island,” which, despite promises of promiscuous sex and even more promiscuous violence, respectively, couldn’t lure an audience.

Meanwhile, cable has made a big splash with audiences and many critics with TNT’s “The Closer” and “Saving Grace,” USA’s “Monk,” “Burn Notice,” and “Royal Pains,” FX’s “Rescue Me” and “Damages” and AMC’s " Mad Men.”

“Broadcast networks repeat their shows in the summer in order to monetize them, so cable stepped into the breach,” explained TNT’s senior vice president Michael Wright. “That definitely helped us build our brand. Broadcast was not bringing out their big guns in the summer.”

Until this summer. Broadcast networks – Fox and ABC, at least – are trying to make inroads with summer scripted programming again. And this time, they say they’re serious.

""The networks have had a lot of success in the unscripted area in summer, but there’s never been a concerted effort to launch scripted,” said Preston Beckman, Fox’s executive VP for strategic program planning. “It’s changing for a number of reasons. Cable used the summer while we’ve laid low. The irony is, if we got the ratings that some cable networks get for their series, we’d be considered failures.”

Jeff Bader, ABC’s executive vice president for planning, scheduling and distribution, added, “A large percentage of our summer schedule is original, but it’s unscripted. So the impression is that we’re not original. This summer, 65% of our programming will be original, much more than any cable network. But they can air one or two scripted series and it’s perceived that they’re trying harder. Having scripted shows makes a difference in perception.”

Hence, this summer, Fox is airing new episodes of its established series “Lie To Me” as well as a new comic cop-show, “Good Guys,” from “Burn Notice” creator Matt Nix. “Good Guys,” which stars Bradley Whitford as a “Starsky-and-Hutch"-style cop partnered with Colin Hanks’ uptight detective, also cheekily follows the crooks’ point of view – “It’s like the bad guys have their own show,” Nix said.

Both debut Monday, though “Good Guys” sneak-previewed last month, where its 5 million viewers were outpaced by what Nix’s “Burn Notice” manages on cable. Nix noted, “Ten years ago, you’d cancel a broadcast show with the highest of contemporary cable ratings. Now that most shows are in the five-to-10-million viewer range, such distinctions are irrelevant.”

ABC is launching three new scripted series this summer. “Rookie Blue” stars Missy Peregrym ( “Heroes”) leading a batch of green cops hitting the beat (debuting June 24, in “Grey’s Anatomy’s” timeslot; Bader calls the show “Grey’s Academy”). “The Gates” centers around a new police chief in an exclusive community whose residents include upscale vampires, while “Scoundrels” stars Virginia Madsen as a woman attempting to reform her family of grifters after her husband is imprisoned (both shows premiere June 20).

Meanwhile, CBS recently brought back “Flashpoint,” a successful Canadian-co-production cop show, while NBC offers two series that feel suspiciously like burn-off theater: the sitcom “100 Questions” that debuted on May 27 to a paltry 2.5 million viewers; and, “Persons Unknown,” a Mexican/American co-production that’s spent some time on the shelf, will finally premiere Tuesday.

Parsing cable’s summer successes, a template becomes apparent: The shows boast eccentric sensibilities and crime-fighting storylines with minimal serialization. TNT has another one that fits that mold – “Memphis Blues,” executive-produced by George Clooney and debuting June 22, about a detective ( Jason Lee) who moonlights as an Elvis Presley impersonator.

“Broadcast TV is being influenced by cable in so many ways in terms of reinventing genres and taking chances, and this is part of it,” said Liz Garcia, who created “Memphis Beat” with her husband, Josh Harto. “TV viewers may be more cynical toward broadcast – maybe they can’t say, ‘We’re going to make innovative programming,’ and then have that deluge of reality shows. The forefront of creativity is on cable TV.”

So, can broadcast networks convince viewers to finally trust their summer wares? Fox’s Beckman is honestly non-committal: “We’re committed to trying to break that perception that the summer is burn-off territory,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean that we’re gonna succeed.”